Public Art: A Personal Journey of Discovery

Posted by Mr. Todd Eric Hawkins, Sep 02, 2014 1 comment

Todd Eric Hawkins Todd Eric Hawkins

My path to a career in public art was not by personal design. I moved to New York City to get discovered as a performer and live the dream I had cultivated since birth (or at least since seeing Jennifer Holliday sing on the Tony Awards.) There were a few steps in that strategic plan that I had not taken into account, like surviving in New York City. I needed a survival job.

As an actor, I found a home with a children's theater company, and paid my bills as an Executive Assistant. During the week I worked for the Dean of Columbia Business School, where I studied how he dealt with a Board and a staff, while on the weekends I was a beast, a mermaid king, a rocking horse, or a giant.

As the years and survival jobs passed, I began to realize that the arts field was much broader than I had realized. It offered many meaningful opportunities to engage with all types of audiences beyond the stage.

Eager to learn more about the breadth of opportunity, I found my way to a limited-residency masters degree program in arts administration. The program allowed me to continue my life in New York while achieving my degree.

At the time I started the program, I was the Secretary to the President of the New York City School Construction Authority. At the end of each workday, I would stay at the office to do homework, or attend online classes. A year and a half into my studies, the President called me into her office to discuss my future. She observed my progression and concluded that my talents would be better suited working on something for which I had greater passion. Once in a while, someone comes along, sees you beyond your role and changes the trajectory of your life. She offered to reassign me as a project manager in the Public Art for Public Schools division. I took the leap and will be forever grateful for her belief in my skills.

I spent the first few months embarking on a self-guided crash course in art history. I would research every artist and art movement mentioned by my colleagues. I thought it would be the key to my success. In order to understand one artwork, I had to understand them all.

What I should have been researching was how to keep an artist on budget and how to get a General Contractor to move an alarm that had been placed in the middle of the art location. These were the type of lessons that I learned the hard way.

The biggest one I learned is that in order to be successful in public art you need to be able to communicate, in a variety of vernaculars, to a wide range of constituents. This is when I realized that I needed all of the skills I had acquired in all of my jobs. Whether translating fairy tales to children or making sure a high-powered executive felt supported, it was the ability to see things through “their” eyes that proved most valuable.

Every day, I have the pleasure of working with artists, architects, custodians, parents, fabricators, lawyers, and politicians, to name a few. All with different ideas, agendas, and ways of communicating.

While guiding artists through the bureaucracy of the city, I work to impart the value of each artwork to the public. More often than not, the difference between a constituent that is engaged and an un-invested one is the connection to and the understanding of the work of art. I have experienced the joy of seeing amazed construction workers as they watch the artwork getting installed. What starts as a chorus of “why do we need art,” quickly becomes a sense of wonder as they uncover the beauty and the mystery of the meaning of the work.

Even I, at first, thought I had to know much more than I did to understand the public art I would be installing. In reality, I only needed an explanation. Not in terms of its artistic or historic context, but rather what it meant and why it was important.

I now experience public art in a very different way. I see it more often, because I understand it. I interact with it, because I have grown to appreciate its power.

I look forward to exploring ways to increase that understanding and acknowledgement for the public at large. For it is in those conversations that I have found the meaningful opportunities to engage with audiences and communities beyond the stage.

The Emerging Leaders in Public Art Blog Salon is generously sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University.

1 responses for Public Art: A Personal Journey of Discovery


September 04, 2014 at 6:24 pm

This is a great personal story Todd. Knowing how to speak to "artists, architects, custodians, parents, fabricators, lawyers, and politicians" is an incredible skill, but it also speaks to the incredible value of public art that it touches so many constituencies as it is becoming. I'll be sure to share this with others!

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